RIOTS SHOW FRACTURES IN SUPPOSEDLY MONOLITHIC IRAN

Think back to the days of the Iran-Contra controversy during the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Think back to the days of the Iran-Contra controversy during the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

A covert operation conducted out of the White House used revolutionary Iran as the intermediary for military assistance on behalf of anti-Communist guerrillas in Latin America. Because antagonisms were still fresh in the U.S. about Americans held hostage for more than 400 days in Iran, revelation of the operation created a scandal that stained Reagan's presidency.

A lasting impression grew out of the mess. In response to criticism about secret dealings with an openly hostile regime, administration officials asserted that they had worked not with anti-American radicals in Iran but rather with Iranians they considered to be moderate.

Their explanation provoked from the political opposition an impossibly simple but certainly memorable reaction: There are no moderates in Iran. The observation fixed itself in popular attitudes. It still shapes much American opinion about Iran and therefore lends political support to foreign policy that insists on treating Iran as a monolithic scourge.

American policy toward Iran includes economic sanctions that keep U.S. oil and gas companies out of the Islamic republic and that alienate differently minded friends, especially in Europe. With so much riding on the derivative policy, it is well worth testing the premise that there are no moderates in Iran. Validity of a foreign policy that treats Iran as a uniformly immoderate scourge pivots on the answer.

Look at Iran this week. Scowling young people have returned to the streets of Tehran and other cities, fists high, chanting slogans. This time, however, the slogans target the ruling clergy and its oppressive version of Islam. Slogans of the first demonstrations did so, at any rate. By the end of the week the clerics under supreme leader Ali Khamenei had mobilized thugs to put down the protests and staged their own self-serving rallies.

The point, however, had been made. Most Iranians are fed up with the oppression and economic tight-fistedness of the clerics and their allies in the bazaars and post-revolutionary foundations, which control large tranches of the troubled economy.

To punctuate the point, early demonstrations also criticized President Mohammad Khatami, elected 2 years ago with a majority large enough to overwhelm poll-rigging of the hard-line rulers. Khatami, in the eyes of at least some of the protestors, isn't reforming the country fast enough.

This is not the behavior of a monolith. This is behavior of a country squirming out from under a corrupt, 20 year old theocracy never able to consummate a post-revolt power struggle.

The fractures have been evident the whole time to outsiders willing to acknowledge them. Unfortunately for oil companies, the U.S. government hasn't been among them.

After this week's events, not even Washington, D.C., can assert there to be a single Iran from which all mischief flows. A complex and potentially fateful struggle is under way in a richly endowed, strategically located country of enormous consequence to the petroleum producing and consuming worlds. An oil-hungry superpower engaged enough to at least identify the power centers in this struggle might have had some influence over the outcome.

As things are, U.S. officialdom can only watch and wonder what happens next in a country in which American interests are many.

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